From Living on Earth:

It’s Living on Earth, I’m Bruce Gellerman.Until last March there had never been an earthquake recorded near Youngstown, Ohio. But since then there have been 11- the last one on New Year’s Eve. The epicenter was near an injection well used by gas drillers to dump millions of gallons of wastewater from hydro-fracking – much of it from nearby Pennsylvania’s gas-rich shale deposits.

Did the disposal of the fracking waste cause the Ohio quakes? Well, the jury is still out, but the polluted fracking water is filled with chemicals and it is extremely salty – 5 times saltier than seawater. Before they began pumping Pennsylvania’s fracking waste into Ohio wells much of it ended up in rivers and streams, and posed a risk to drinking water.

Pennsylvania officials thought they solved the problem when they banned fracking water from treatment plants, but that didn’t work. Reid Frazier of the radio program The Allegheny Front reports, scientists are now scrambling to find out why not, and what to do about it.

FRAZIER: Frank Blaskovich is standing on a catwalk over a pool of water near the Ohio River. He points at a series of pipes draining into the far end of the pool.

BLASKOVICH: What we’re seeing is out of those seven standpipes over there… that’s the river water coming in.

FRAZIER: Blaskovich manages the Wheeling, West Virginia, water treatment plant. His job is to take water from the Ohio and make it into safe drinking water for his city of 30,000. But since 2008, the Ohio has been too salty. So he’s had to dilute it with groundwater from backup wells. Blaskovich doesn’t like doing this because each added step costs money.

BLASKOVICH: The price of water will eventually go up which probably will lead to a possible rate hike.

FRAZIER: But he’s blending the river water anyway because it’s got high levels of bromide. Bromide is a salt, and by itself it’s harmless. But combined with chlorine, at a drinking water plant like this one, it forms chemicals called trihalomethanes. Long term exposure to trihalomethanes increases the risk of bladder and other cancers. Because of high bromide levels in the rivers, Wheeling and dozens of plants in Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia have violated the EPA’s limits on trihalomethanes over the last three years.

Bromides come from many places–sea water, coal-fired power plants, and chemicals. But the Ohio’s spike in bromide occurred three years ago, and Blaskovich thinks that’s no coincidence.

BLASKOVICH: That’s when deep drilling for gas sort of took off up in this area of the country.

FRAZIER: Each Marcellus shale gas well produces millions of gallons of salty water. The water is full of bromides, and until recently, drillers in Western Pennsylvania trucked this brine to wastewater plants for disposal. The plants could treat the water for metals and other pollutants, but not bromides. That requires expensive new technology. The plants would simply release the treated water–bromides and all–into rivers and streams.

But after trihalomethane levels started creeping up at drinking water plants, regulators took interest. In March, the EPA expressed concern over Pennsylvania’s handling of Marcellus discharge, and a month later, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection asked drillers to stop sending wastewater to treatment plants. DEP secretary Mike Krancer said a voluntary program would simply be quicker than making a new rule.

KRANCER: The industry– and I knew they would–did the responsible thing and complied, so we had compliance in 28 hours instead of 28 months.

FRAZIER: According to DEP records reviewed by The Allegheny Front, the request stopped most, but not all drillers from sending Marcellus shale brine to these plants. After the request was made, some facilities, like the Franklin Brine Treatment plant, south of Erie, saw their oil and gas wastewater shipments drop by 70 percent.

Drillers say they are recycling more of their water now, or sending it to Ohio, where it’s injected into deep storage wells. So if drillers are sending much less of their salty water to treatment plants, bromide levels in the rivers should be going down. But, at least this year, that hasn’t been the case. Jeanne Van Briesen is a Carnegie Mellon scientist who’s monitored bromide on the Monongahela River for the past two years.

VAN BRIESEN: We thought in such a wet year, we would see almost no bromide, it would be below our detection limit in most of our samples, and it was not.

FRAZIER: But the question remains, where is the bromide coming from?

Read or listen to the rest of the story here.